Last week, we shared Colin’s story and reflected on the impact of stigma. Friends and family, services and society can at times be quick to judge someone who lives a “chaotic life.” However, chaos is rarely a lifestyle choice. Really often, it is a coping mechanism.
After hearing the stories of others in similar situations, Tex reflected: “I’ve come to realise that the majority of us had the same experiences in childhood that have led us on the path we are today.” Indeed, from Hard Edges we know that 85% of people experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage have had traumatic experiences in childhood.
‘Not all that surprising’ you might say. So why is it that support is almost always reactionary? If childhood trauma is something that is widely recognised, why have most of the people we met only been able to access to therapeutic support too late?
For Karen, it was almost 30 years too late. Karen describes her childhood as mostly good until her parents separated when she was 10 years old. She remembers a particularly violent fight between them, after her mother discovered her father had been unfaithful:
“Mum was in Southampton at the time. She found out. She drove all the way up to Oxford… She was drunk. She came in and they argued. I got sent upstairs, but my sister and I, we sat on the stairs. We saw everything. Mum pulled a knife from the drawer and tried to stab him in the neck… That’s when my life changed. I started being disruptive. I was blaming it all on myself…”
Following that incident, Karen was placed in a care home. She spent her teenage years between care homes, foster parents and sometimes her friends’ sofas, hoping her father would come back into her life.
“I took an overdose around that time. But I think it was more an attention seeking thing … All I wanted was to live with dad.”
Karen reflects on how what she experienced as a rejection from someone she deeply loved impacted on the rest of her life.
Karen met her first partner when she was 17. Together, they had 4 children, and although she was focused on being a good mum, and ensuring they wouldn’t experience what she did experience as a child, it wasn’t easy. “He was cheating on me all 16 years we were together. I knew he was. But to me, he was my family, and I wanted to keep us together.” When her partner left her for another woman, Karen found it hard to cope with this second major rejection in her life. “I couldn’t cope. I took to drink. I was feeling I couldn’t handle it. The kids started to get to school late. That’s when social services got involved…
“I was 32. I feel I should have been a stronger woman. I had no confidence, no self-esteem. My drinking… It just took the pain away. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. If I could go back to that time, I would tell myself: ‘get it together girl! You are better than that!’”
Eventually, her four children were placed in care. Another separation, another trauma, another blow to her self-esteem.
Fast forward a year later, Karen was sleeping rough on the streets of Liverpool, in an abusive relationship, selling the Big Issue and spending the money collected on alcohol.
“Nothing mattered to me. I was full of low self-esteem. I’d beat myself up. I thought I deserved it because I had lost my children.”
It was when she felt she had reached her lowest point that Karen started to engage with the Women’s Turnaround Project, a Probation programme offering a safe and supportive space for women struggling with drugs and alcohol, offending and domestic violence. Karen is clear that recovery wasn’t straightforward. After years on the street, it was a challenge to adjust to living in a flat by herself. It was also a challenge to rebuild a motherly relationship with her 4 children.
People cope with rejection and traumatic experiences in childhood in different ways. Acting out, seeking evasion, self-medicating… These are all normal responses to extreme situations, but society tends to view these reactions as abnormal. People learn to believe ‘it must be my fault’, and risk spiralling into self esteem issues even deeper than those already embedded through the traumas themselves. Life becomes not only about rejection, but the lack of support means life also becomes about coping alone.
Karen is proud of how far she has come. She has been volunteering with User Voice for a more than a year, and is now starting a paid contract with them. Her ambition now is to support other women who have been through similar experiences. Karen is clear that the key to her recovery was the support she got from the services at Turnaround, around recovering her self-esteem and learning that it wasn’t all her fault.
How do you think services could have better served people like Karen? Listen to her story and let us know your thoughts.